Following three dismal losses to open the season, Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel threw down the gauntlet for his struggling young team.
“If they think this [the move from Atlanta] gives them an excuse to fail,” he fumed, “they’ve got another thing coming.”
Apparently the Jets got the message. Playing before a frenzied sellout crowd at the MTS Centre, Winnipeg rode a pair of first-period goals and a stellar 28-save performance by Ondrej Pavelec to down the banged-up Penguins, 2-1.
For the Pens, it must’ve felt like last spring all over again. Playing in their league-high seventh game of the season, the black and gold skated onto the ice without the services of top guns Sidney Crosby (concussion), Evgeni Malkin (knee), and 20-goal man Tyler Kennedy (concussion-like symptoms).
Sensing an opportunity, Winnipeg pounced. Just eight seconds into the contest, Kyle Wellwood flew into the Penguins’ zone on a three-on-one break and punched the puck past a stunned Marc-Andre Fleury. Suitably inspired, the Jets held the slow-starting Pens off the shot clock for 11-plus minutes. Their hard work reaped dividends late in the period, when off-season acquisition Tanner Glass beat Fleury with a bullet from the high slot to give the Jets a 2-0 lead.
“You can’t just go out and skate in circles for the first 10 minutes of an NHL game,” Pens winger Matt Cooke lamented. “I don’t know what we expected was going to come from that.”
Refusing to fold, the Pens battled back with a spirited second period, out-shooting the Jets by a margin of 14-11. At 18:22 Cooke slid the puck to Kris Letang, who quickly fed Zbynek Michalek at center point. “Zibby,” who lost his balance and fell to the ice on the game-opening goal, lowered his head and blasted the rubber past Pavelec for his first goal of the season to cut the Jets’ lead in half.
While Fleury slammed the door in the third period with a series of highlight-reel saves, the Pens pressed furiously for a tying goal. The action heated up with four minutes to play, when Ben Lovejoy tangled with the Jets’ Jim Slater after Chris Kunitz was tripped into the boards by ex-Pen Chris Thorburn. The Penguins emerged from the fray with a power play, but were unable to cash in with the man advantage.
“We made a lot of mistakes,” said Lovejoy, whose puck-handling gaffe led to the Jets’ second goal. “We just didn’t execute all night.”
Fleury (32 saves) earned the No. 2 star … The Pens killed off four Winnipeg power plays … The penalty killing remains near perfect (95.45 percent) … The Pens were 0-3 on the power play (two goals in their last 22 chances) … James Neal and Matt Niskanen topped the team with four shots apiece … Pittsburgh has scored 11 goals in three games with Malkin in the lineup, and eight goals in four games minus Geno … Kennedy, Malkin, and Brooks Orpik were scratches.
The Penguins (3-2-2) take on Mike Yeo and the Minnesota Wild (2-1-2) at Xcel Energy Center Tuesday night. Former Pens prospect Nick Johnson has a goal in three games with the Wild. The Pens trail the all-time series with the Wild, 2-8-2.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s new book, “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” at TriumphBooks.com. It features 296 pages of bios, stories, anecdotes and photos from the team’s colorful past in a compelling, easy-to-read style. Whether you’re a die-hard booster from the days of Jean Pronovost or a big fan of Sid and Geno, this book is a must have for any true Penguins fan.
Don’t forget to check out Rick’s first book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and storied history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more.